HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Munnar: Chaos in the Streets

(Note: 45 rupees = 1 USD)
The red line indicates our journey, as the crow flies.
Our trip to Munnar, a small town located over 5,000 feet above sea level in the Western Ghats mountain range, did not get off to an auspicious start. We had decided to take a state bus from Cochin, since taxis are very expensive, but every member of the hotel staff chuckled and said "It's going to be really rough" when Kevin and I told them our plan. Kevin actually had an Indian friend going to Munnar from a different city, and even he was taking a taxi.

So, with little confidence and lots of trepidation, we piled into an auto to go to Cochin's bus station. Once we arrived, we became even more nervous. It had just stopped raining, and the station was completely flooded; the interior probably had a foot of standing water on the floor. None of the buses had English signs on them, so we stood around despairingly for a while. Finally, we asked a younger guy if he knew which bus was going to Munnar. He pointed to one that was starting to leave, and said: "That one."

Somehow the driver seemed to know that we wanted on his bus, and he stopped, despite our uncertainty. We got on, saw that there were plenty of empty seats, and wondered, "How bad can it really be?" For a while, not very. We took on some more passengers, but everything remained rather calm. However, once we began the climb up to Munnar, the insanity began.

As we got higher, the passing scenery became more and more amazing. Sadly, I could only take in each vista for maybe a second, before the driver ripped the bus around another hairpin turn. He was absolutely thrashing the thing, in an apparent attempt  to set a new record in the "Cochin to Munnar By Bus" category. Whenever he spotted someone waiting to to be picked up at the side of the road, he stood on the brakes, bringing the beast to a shuddering halt, and then floored it as soon as the person had one foot in the door.
Up in the clouds
We were going so fast I couldn't even focus the camera at times
An example of the stunning tea plantations around Munnar
As we got higher the mist descended
Despite our breakneck pace, cars and motos were still screaming past us on the tight, two-way mountain road. I was amazed: people in little hatchbacks went for passes around blind corners, honking wildly, surely realizing that a truck or bus could be hurtling towards them on the other side of the turn. I fully expected to see a car get launched off the mountain, but it didn't happen.

We did, however, come across a brawl in the middle of the road. We came to a screeching halt, and I could see that traffic was stopped in both directions. But, I was on the left side of the bus, facing nothing but mountain. I could hear a ruckus on the right side - men and women screaming hysterically, and what sounded like flesh being hit. Everyone on the bus was pressed up against the windows, cheering and jeering. I decided to stay seated, since you never know what can happen when everyone else in an excited crowd has a different skin color from you. Kevin was on the right side, thinking the same thing, but he was stuck against the window, with a front-row seat. Apparently, a man had gotten out of a car and pulled two guys off of a moto. They began shouting at each other, and more men got involved, their wives vainly trying to keep things from escalating. Eventually, haymakers were thrown, and one guy got hit in the head with a bike helmet. Thankfully, after a few somewhat tense minutes, the bus driver found a way through the crowd, and we continued on. I was glad we weren't in Kashmir.

By the time we reached Munnar (To give you an idea of how bad the roads in India are: it took 5 hours to cover the roughly 70 miles from Cochin.), there were probably close to 90 people on the bus: it's capacity was no more than 70. Still, the ride wasn't THAT bad, and the trip only cost 60 rupees!

We checked into our hotel and immediately grabbed some food. At the restaurant, an older woman stared intently at me the entire time I ate. It was quite awkward, and she wouldn't even look away when I made eye contact with her. Once again, I felt like I was in a zoo, with people watching the new animal get fed for the first time. After that, we decided to hop in an auto and visit Kevin's friend, who was staying in a hotel 12km outside of town. This ended up being a terrible decision, one that led to, quite possibly, the most terrifying 45 minutes of my life. That will get its own post, though.

Once we got back to town, thankful to be alive, we decided we needed some alcohol therapy. The only place in Munnar to down a beer (India is extremely conservative) was the dark, cramped bar in Isaac's Residency Hotel. This set a trend for the rest of the trip: towns with utterly nonexistent nightlife.

The next morning we went to rent motorbikes. Although I have hundreds of hours of experience on a moto, my bike in Saigon is clutchless. The bikes we really wanted had clutches, and Kevin had no experience on any kind of bike. The guy that owned the motos looked genuinely concerned at the prospect of us learning how to drive clutch bikes on dangerous mountain roads, so we went for the girly automatic scooters, for safety's sake.

In the end, it didn't matter if our bikes were a bit feminine: they were completely overshadowed by the spectacular scenery of the Western Ghats. We passed delicately planted tea plantations, sprawling forests, a dam that provided magnificently panoramic views, and an elephant that was helping to clear felled timber. All while we were trying to avoid cows and berserk drivers.

Our destination was Top Station, 5,600 feet above sea level and 40 km outside of Munnar. Top Station sits on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and is one of the highest observation points in the area. As we got closer, we caught tantalizing glimpses of what was to come, and then we finally arrived. The views were astonishing: Mountain faces dropped sharply into the flat plains of Tamil Nadu; small buildings clung to the mountainsides; and clouds spilled over the summits and down the sheer faces. Behind us, darker clouds were pouring over the more distant mountains: It was going to be a wet ride back to Munnar.
It was but, fortunately, it didn't rain as hard as we were expecting it to. The drive out to Top Station was easily the highlight of our stop in Munnar and, despite our near-death experience, Kevin and I were glad we visited the town. The scenery was great, and the cool, clean air of the mountains felt wonderful. Sure, there's nothing to do in Munnar once the sun goes down, but the potential daytime adventures make up for that. Next up, I'll end the suspense by discussing The Auto Ride from Hell.

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